One of my favourite things about traveling is trying new foods – and the more I travel, the more adventurous I seem to get with trying them. When we decided we were going to Iceland there was one dish I knew I wanted to try – Hákarl.
Hákarl is the Icelandic National Dish, and it’s the meat of the Greenland Shark. I’ve wanted to try it since I saw Jeremy Wade try it on River Monsters. Oh but there’s a catch – it’s been fermented and hung to dry for 4-5 months. “Why would someone eat that?” You might be asking yourself. It turns out that the meat of the Greenland shark is toxic. But when you’re an early settler on a cold remote island, sometimes you have to innovate in order to have enough food. So they developed a process to detoxify the meat, and that process has remained virtually unchanged since Viking times. To start, they bury it in the ground, which presses all the toxic liquid out. Fun fact: The main liquids are ammonia and uric acid, and that’s what the meat ferments in. Sounds great right? In a month or two, they dig it back up. Then they cut it to hang dry in the cold air for another few months. Apparently they can tell when it’s ready from the way it smells.
I wanted to try it, because when else are you going to get the chance to try something like that? Everyone I told said that there was no way I was going to go through with it – which only fueled my desire to try it more. But I decided that I wasn’t going to actively search it out, especially if it was expensive (budget travel, am I right?). But on our last day in Iceland, we were in Reykjavik at a little place called Cafe Loki, which is right down the street from Hallgrimskirkja and serves traditional Icelandic food. We just popped in for a coffee and a quick bite, when we saw that you could try Hákarl for around $13. We were there in the restaurant so of course we had to order it. They bring out a little plastic cup (like a jello shot cup) with a toothpick and 1-2 little pieces of meat the size of a fingernail or so. They also give you a shot of Brennivín (an Icelandic aqavit) to wash it down with.
So what did it taste like? Chemicals. The shark ferments in ammonia so it has a distinct chemical smell and taste. It’s like eating a chewy thing soaked in bleach. Then you wash it down with the liquor to cleanse the palette. There were some other tourists in the cafe watching us try it – and promptly asked how it was. Honestly it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever tried. I actually disliked the shot afterward more than the meat. It was worth trying for the experience.
Fun Fact: Anthony Bourdain said it was the worst thing he ever ate and Gordon Ramsay spat it out upon trying it.
If you’re ever in Iceland and you get the chance – I think it’s worth trying.